Not me: the story of a female surgical subspecialist

I’ve thought long and hard about writing this, so here goes:  I am a female surgical subspecialist. I trained at a Harvard program back in the 1990s, and was one of a handful of women to have completed residency training at a stodgy 125-year-old program.  The eighth, to be exact.  During that time, I was treated as an inferior, sexually abused verbally, routinely given the bottom of the barrel when it came to choosing surgeries to scrub in on, and given absolutely no respect by my attendings.  I was asked to do unspeakable “tasks,” and was the butt of many filthy jokes.  Joining the faculty at UCLA has been no different.  When I began my career as an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, I was barely graced with the title “doctor,” colleagues ignored me, and I was often referred to simply as “cute” and “sweet.”

I could now go ahead and use this platform to call out many of my abusers by name. But I choose not to. And here’s why: There have been none. I’ll bet that first paragraph led you with earnest to read this one, but none of it is true. Fake medical news, at least regarding the abuse. Yes, I was the eighth woman to graduate from a stereotypical East Coast “old boys club” 125-year-old residency program.  In my graduating class of five, there were four men and me.  The classes above and below us were nearly all men over a five-year span, with one other woman out of twenty overall at any given time.  But amidst a climate of nearly daily reveals of yet another disgusting sexual predator, one week at UCLA, another week at USC, not to mention disgraceful male doctors at countless other medical centers across the country, I was and continue to be treated with respect.

My co-residents were like brothers to me, not predators.  My attendings were teachers, mentors, educators, and sources of support and guidance.  Were there the occasion flirtations and perhaps more?  Of course.  We were residents in the true sense, spending more hours in the hospital than out.  We were in our twenties, many of us.  Any occasion dalliance was mutual.  And although I have heard of and seen some disgraceful behavior at my own institution, I have never been the subject of sexual misconduct, verbal or otherwise.  When I joined a surgical department over two decades ago, it was still a rarity for a woman to be a surgeon.  But from day one, I was treated as a surgeon, not as a “woman surgeon.” Women in all professions are rightly coming forward with horrendous stories of their recent and distant past about abuse, unfair treatment, subtle and not-so-subtle professional snubs due to gender, and wide-ranging examples of the importance of sustaining the #metoo movement.

But I thought it was high time to tell another story. To paint all male-dominated professions as viper pits filled with evil male sexual harassers is potentially causing some harm to both men and women, especially in hospital settings. Many men, especially those in medicine and surgery, are (rightly?) terrified of anything they say to a female being misconstrued as sexually suggestive, even if it pertains to a patient’s surgical issues, that much communication has become cursory and limited. Any personal inquiry, such as “how are you?” can be perceived as invasive and confrontational.  I know many male doctors who have completely withdrawn from all but absolutely necessary communication with colleagues, so as not to be taken as an aggressive threat.  I wracked my brains to conjure my own #MeToo experience, having been in a male-dominated profession for a quarter of a century.  It frustrated me that I had perhaps suppressed so much indignity I had suffered, especially in those early years.   Until I realized that my memory is a steel trap. I’m not forgetting anything.  I’ve worked with some pretty good eggs over the years.  They just happened to be men.

Nina Shapiro is a pediatric otolaryngologist.  She is the author of Hype: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims, and Bad Advice – How to Tell What’s Real and What’s Not and can be reached on her self-titled site, Dr. Nina Shapiro, and can be reached on Twitter @drninashapiro

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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